Grace McLean Steals the Show at Lincoln Center

by delarue

There’s no one in the world who sounds exactly like Grace McLean. With a stiletto sense of humor, a sharp sense of history, an irresistibly infectious stage presence and a quirky, individualistic sense of melody that’s nothing short of avant garde yet incredibly catchy,  she charmed and seduced a young, energized, very drama-school-looking crowd at Lincoln Center Wednesday night with her inimitable mix of bouncy loopmusic and savagely deadpan between-song banter. McLean’s lyrical references and tunesmithing may be in the here and now, but her sensibility is pure, early-80s edgy downtown NYC punk performance art. Among more contemporary artists, she brings to mind both Killy Dwyer and Tammy Faye Starlite.

Her genius is that she draws the crowd in with her catchy, dancing hooks – her timing, rhythmwise and otherwise is as amazing as her music is strangely compelling. Then, when she’s got your head bobbing, she smacks you right there. She’s got an opera about Hildegard von Bingen currently in development, and this time out chose instead to do a song inspired by a Hildegard counterpart, St. Ursula. As McLean told it, that woman led a thousand virgins on a pilgimage to the Holy Land…where they were intercepted by Huns, who killed them all. “That’s what you had to do to be famous in the eleventh century if you were a woman,” McLean mused. But that also meant achieving the pinnacle of success for a medieval girl: “You got to join in everlasting marriage with god,” McLean beamed.

She performed most of her set by layering loops of vocals against each other and then singing over them, an art that takes split-second timing and perfect pitch to pull off, and she made it look easy. She opened the set seated at the piano for a single number, joined by a rhythm section and backup singers who’d return at the end of the show. The first couple of songs had a suspiciously sardonic urban top 40 flavor, but exactly what McLean was spoofing, if anything, wasn’t clear.

From there, things got interesting in a hurry. Her cover of Heather Christian’s Wild Animals – employing rhymes from Gertrude Stein’s lone children’s book – was as funny as it was disconcertingly trippy. McLean’s own Natural Disaster raised the gallows humor factor, something that would permeate much of the rest of the show. A mighty, anthemic number titled Where Is the White Light evoked My Brightest Diamond as McLean took a swipe at new age cluelessness, while the ethereally crescendoing waves of a diptych a little later on brought to mind Bjork at her artsiest and weirdest. Existential angst was everywhere, particularly in a later number whose momentary refrain was “I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody.”

Elsewhere, McLean had plenty of fun with guy/girl dynamics, particularly when the music lapsed toward faux “R&B,” most memorably with a couple of what were ostensibly diary entries from her gradeschool years. She wound up the show by finding the missing link between a couple of iconic Beatles and Stones songs, closing with a rousingly Memphis-flavored take of her big va-voom crowd-pleaser My Friend’s Roommate and then a Broadway standard where she pulled out all the stops to show off a powerful, brassy mezzo-soprano. It’s impossible to think of an edgier, more entertaining way for Lincoln Center to introduce this year’s Great American Songbook series.